When Lent Loses its Impact – What Then?

“I’m giving up Facebook for Lent” profile photos popped up last week. A girlfriend changed hers and asked not to contact her this way, “Please use some other method– not Facebook or Messenger.” Another said, “I’m doing it again this year” without further explanation. Does skipping Facebook put them in a Lenten mindset? What is a Lenten mindset?

Last Wednesday was my fourth Ash Wednesday service–the kickoff to the season of Lent as preparation for Easter. In prior years, the liturgical service drew me into pondering the deprivation Jesus experienced in the wilderness, and connected me to the historical church’s practice of readying new believers for baptism on Easter Sunday. Not this year.palms-for-ash-wednesday burning

A member of the circle around the Weber grill, I tossed palm crosses from last Palm Sunday onto the coals after reciting one of the selected verses about fasting, contrite and humble hearts, trusting God to supply food and clothing, not relying on our efforts, or looking out for others. Yet the expected sense of union with fellow believers and Christ didn’t come then nor after the Eucharist.

Maybe the faded novelty left me wanting. Maybe unfamiliarity delivered solemnity more readily than knowing what to expect. Maybe comparison to the past dimmed this year’s experience. Or maybe the past year filled with giving up and surrendering made opting to spend an additional 40 days entrenched there less attractive.Not that the tough experiences were devoid of blessings and joy. Though unpleasant, I walked through them less tenuously than before. Instead of avoiding the pain, I chose to feel it, live in it, survive it and trust it would eventually lessen. Maybe surrender, deprivation and loss are more appealing when they’re a choice rather than a survival posture or the brier patch on the road to healing.

Or maybe there’s a different key that unlocks the door into Lent. Ash Wednesday highlights our mortality with the cruciform imposition of ashes from the burnt palm branches, and the liturgy repeats that we are but dust, will return to dust and need to turn from sin to Christ. We spend the next forty days (plus a few Sundays) in penitence and repentance, spiritual practices and caring for others until we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. The sacrifices and acknowledging our fallen state highlight our need for God, but they can make him seem distant, even punitive.

In Scripture, Jesus’ time in the wilderness wasn’t preparation for the cross, but for a ministry of teaching, healing and miracles. The description of his deprivation is brief, and only mentions fasting from food for forty days. The accounts appear at the beginning of the Synoptic Gospels –Matthew, Mark and Luke– where it follows the narration of Jesus’ baptism in Mark while Matthew and Luke sandwich a genealogy in between the scenes.

At his baptism the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended on him, and a voice from heaven spoke,“This is my Son whom I love, with him I am well pleased.”This moment of theophany when the three members of the Trinity shared the stage must have blown those present away, if not immediately, then later when they reflected. It was after this full-blown endorsement of Jesus’ identity and status as God’s Son that the Spirit moved him into the wilderness to be tested* by Satan.

Our willingness to step into a wilderness of our choosing, a period of deprivation, is often characterized as a way to help us find ourselves, to know who we are before God, and break the powerful hold of good things we often treasure more than God. But for Jesus, that’s where he started. It was this awareness and affirmation that empowered him to endure forty days of fasting and Satan’s skillful barbs rather than a result of the struggle.

Yes, we’re mortal, created beings whose brief time on earth is likened to mere grass or wildflowers (Psalm 103:15.) We need an annual Ash Wednesday to break our proud hearts as we’re prone to think we’re like pyramids or the Parthenon. But we need to be reminded that before Jesus went to the wilderness, he had God’s full approval and knew his identity as the Son dearly loved by his Father. It’s not our fasting, dropping off Facebook, burning withered palm branches, or ignoring chocolate cravings that puts us in the good graces of God. We are already there as children of God led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14; I John 3:1, 2).

Jesus knew who he was, who his Father was, and that he could trust the Spirit’s leading. This is our key, too, for survival in testing and sacrifice–whether self-selected or not. Along with a recognition of mortality, we can knead this identity awareness into Lent like a baker adding flour to a sticky batch of dough. Acts of deprivation or sacrifice can’t take us there, they are the ingredients we need at the start.

 

 

*The Greek word can mean both “tested” and “tempted.” My New Testament professor, Dr. Grant Osborne, preferred “tested” because the devil was pushing Jesus to define his Messiahship and identity through temptation.

Getting a Handle on the News – Why It Matters

news swirlDoes the world seem messier than usual? Stories about ISIS, the Syrian refugee crises, police and gang shootings, the US Presidential campaign, terrorist attacks, drought, epidemic outbreaks, and unease in the Ukraine, North Korea, Palestine, Iraq, and Israel advance the perception that the world is worse off than ever before. The world feels more unsettled than usual, but is that quantifiably true?

In December 2014 Slate authors, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, asked this question and concluded, “The World is Not Falling Apart.” To determine whether the world was coming apart at the seams, they conducted an in-depth study of world-wide statistics in the following areas: homicides, violence against women, violence against children, democratization vs. autocracy, genocide & mass killings of civilians and war. In each category, the trend lines are headed downward. Based on statistics and hard numbers, the world today is actually safer and more peaceful in each of these categories than it has been in the last sixty years.

Why doesn’t this quantifiable truth seem real? Maybe it’s the inescapable 24/7news that keeps the hard stuff front and center. Or the invasion of links to world and personal tragedies in the once-benign Facebook feed of kittens, babies and family gatherings. Or the transformation of the news into entertainment as presciently predicted in the 1976 classic movie, Network. Or the barrage of news when pumping gas or waiting for a flight that makes us think the world is messier than usual. Whatever the cause, the net result of continual exposure to disasters and tragedies is pessimism and anxiety.

Studies after 9/11 showed that viewers who watched the continual replays of the collapsing Trade Towers were generally more stressed and distraught than those who viewed them fewer times. Women and children are affected most, but it impacts everyone. Watching the same video footage over and over indelibly presses the scene into our mushy cerebrum and traumatizes us over and over. There’s a reason it’s called a news feed. We ingest what we read, absorb it into our system and are influenced by the quality or lack of nutrients. Just as someone determined to lose weight counts the calories, we need to think about our news diet. Are we eating all day long? Consuming junk? Caught in the latest acai berry trend? Obsessed with trending arrows and hashtags, likes and shares? Addicted to the rush from following breaking stories?

Awareness of the onslaught of news and our rate of consumption makes total separation appealing, but it’s neither an attainable goal nor healthy. While trend lines slope downward, they aren’t at 0. We need the news to remind us that work remains as injustice, hatred, and evil still lurk. We need the stories to spark us to volunteer, start an organization, send an email, or research the issue further. We would hurt ourselves and others if we disengaged entirely. If cold turkey or constant connection aren’t beneficial, how do we find the balance between uninformed and overwhelmed?

To stop the news balloon from blocking the sun and triggering Eeyore thinking, I’ve found the following tips helpful:

  • Avoid the news until later in the morning so it doesn’t set the tone for the day.
  • Be selective before entering the never-ending chain of links in online articles.
  • Consider whether the source has been vetted or is the story more personal outrage like the Starbucks Christmas cup fiasco.
  • Help others by limiting what you “share”, especially early commentary on an issue. Too many times I’ve shared and later regretted it when the claim was debunked–like the use of Roundup as the cause for the rise in gluten intolerance.
  • Notice my emotional reaction, and pull away when fear and anger take over. Unless those emotions propel me into helpful action, mere fretting wastes valuable energy.
  • When now seems the worst time to be alive, it’s time to pull away and re-calibrate.

The world is messy, people’s lives are messy, but that reality can’t be the main lens that frames our perspective.

Because we aren’t passive recipients, because the news has a powerful impact on our mindset, when we make wise choices in consumption, the world will look brighter and tidier than we imagined. Give it a try.

The Empty Chairs

an-empty-chairIn this week after Thanksgiving we’re still aglow with positive posts and tweets of family meals and gatherings. Long tables decorated to make Martha Stewart envious; pies perfect enough to tempt Paula Deen ask for the recipe; and over-achievers getting a head start on Christmas decorating. It’s wonderful to celebrate and express gratitude, it’s good for our soul and healthy for our psyche. We want to share in each other’s happiness and blessings, yet we also need to make space for the empty chairs.

There are always several. Maybe work schedules interfered or travel plans went awry. A tough medical diagnosis or an illness, misunderstandings or hurt feelings, multiple invitations or accommodating the in-laws kept some away. Maybe we’ve lost touch and drifted apart, or someone moved. Or maybe there was a death, and the chair filled only with memories of guffaws and a crooked smile looms large.

Kathleen Norris writes in Cloister Walk of a long-forgotten writer who said that America’s true religions are optimism and denial. These “things will get better”, “nothing is wrong” defense mechanisms carry us far as a nation, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of them. But they aren’t the tools we need to deal with and move toward acceptance of the inevitable empty chairs.

For that we need lament and grief – neither of which will bring you a large following in any land or era. Eat. Love. Pray” entices more than “Cry. Weep. Mourn.” Motivational speakers fill arenas, but a reading of multiple lament Psalms will empty one. Job’s three friends wearied of his sackcloth wardrobe and ashes mousse, and Paul mourned when everyone deserted him (2 Timothy 4:16.) Jesus wrestled alone in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion when Peter, James and John fell asleep after he’d invited them to pray nearby.

Grieving, mourning and walking alongside those in that place looks to be acquired skill, not something that comes naturally. We’d rather push ahead and deny the hurt than sit on the dung heap and scrape boils like Job. His friends wanted him to get up and get moving, but he choose to sit and feel the pain of stolen oxen, camels and donkeys, murdered servants, burned sheep, and the death of his sons and daughters. He sat in his unrelenting pain, started legal proceedings against God, doubted he would see happiness again, and wished he hadn’t been born. He had a string of bad days and friends with bad advice to make it worse.

But Job lived what counselors teach — the path to emotional and spiritual health is through the pain. We need to acknowledge it, not deny it or paint over it with an optimism brush. When we rail and cry out against it, that’s when we’re open enough to find God in it. It may take the equivalent of thirty-seven chapters like it did Job, and our “why’s” won’t be fully answered, but we maybe we’ll move to the point where we’re able to say along with Job, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5).

Job knew about empty chairs, we all know about empty chairs. Job took the less-traveled path and learned to allow the pain to lead him to praise and trust in his God; we can, too. At the next holiday gathering, recognize the empty chairs and be open to the pain they spark. Acknowledge it, sit with it; welcome the hurt, grieve the loss. You might find God has been sitting there all along.

Know Who’s in Your Cloud? Time to Learn Some Names

cloud of witnesses

“All Saints” by Fra Angelico

The writer of Hebrews beat Apple to the cloud concept by a few millennia. More than a binary data storage bank for easy access, the cloud in Hebrews 12:1 is composed of the faithful who’ve successfully completed the project. Their presence affirms that the journey is doable, the race can be finished, the suffering can be endured, the prize is worthy of the challenge. “Look,” they’re saying, “we did it, you can too.”

It’s time to tap into this neglected cloud.

This fall I’ve been teaching a class on the History of Christianity – a low-key, in-a-home study with a dozen women who are bravely walking the path from the first century to the rumblings of the Reformation with me. Our backgrounds vary as do our current churches of choice, but our common ancestry brings us together, and the study unveils our common foundation.

A month in and we can name a section of spectators who willingly sacrificed their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ. Not just the apostles, but Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch whose tales of bravery in the face of death are updated and replayed weekly in the national and international news. Then there are the theologians and church leaders who wrestled with the two natures (fully human/fully divine) question of the identity of Jesus Christ. They wrote lengthy analyses, fought heretics on paper, and sat on Councils that shaped and wrote the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds we still recite. People like Athanasius, Tertullian, Jerome, Iranaeus, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Pope Leo I, and the hundreds of bishops who sought to stay true to the Apostles’ teaching and experience. There are thousands more whose names are lost to historians.

Denominations that follow a practice of preparation for baptism or confirmation access this cloud more than others. Catechism classes are a wonderful opportunity to teach heritage and history, and to give the reasons behind tradition and practices. These glimpses of the deeply-rutted trail back to the cross teach about the cloud of witnesses the author of Hebrews’ promises are spectators of our journey today.

Unfortunately, decisional evangelism as commonly practiced in non-denominational churches and evangelistic crusades, erases the trail and shortens the timeline to you and God in this moment.The over-emphasis on your decision in the present, neglects the chorus, the crowd of spectators, the spiritual ancestors who’ve walked this road, faced a similar choice, continued on the journey and are now cheering.

On one level the spiritual journey to Christ has a solo component – there is an individual choice to make.Yet there’s always a community of breath-holders watching that first baby step of faith and all that follow. As David A. deSilva writes, “the author [of Hebrews] wants the Christians to see themselves surrounded by the host of the faithful in every age, who have run the race with excellence and whose lives bear testimony to the reality of the prize for which we all strive together.”[1] The spectators that make up the cloud know it’s a hard road as Jesus promised his disciples in Mark 8:34-38, but they also know the joy of the finished race. When we learn their names and hear their stories, they are the ones we don’t want to let down. Plus their stores are the ones that encourage us to persevere.

Sure, the history of Christians is full of scoundrels, embezzlers, greedy, hungry for power individuals who used religion, faith and Christianity to further their own interests. But let’s focus our gaze on the faithful who learned from Jesus and the apostles how to run the race. Hebrews 11:1-39 provides synopses of the lives of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and many others. Now we can add two thousand years of stories of the faithful and extend the list.

They’re the cloud of cheering spectators we need on the tough days when we think we’re walking alone or running an endless race.There’s unlimited storage available, it’s time to find out who’s in your cloud.

__________________________________________________________

An excellent resource is a book by Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.

[1] David A. deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 429-431.

The Brandon Tree

Still looking for a photo in the family archive. This will suffice for now.

Still looking for a photo from the family archive.This is about the original size.

The spindly pine seedling poked a few inches above the Styrofoam cup clutched in my kindergartner’s hands. He proudly held his Arbor Day gift and wanted to plant it. Our yard was narrow and heavily shaded by mature maple trees, and the pine tree wouldn’t do well. I explained how the tree would be tall someday and would need lots of space. Though tiny, we needed to plan for how big it could be one day.

Next time we visited my parent’s home outside of Milwaukee, we took along the seedling which Brandon had watered and tended for several weeks. (Fascinating to see what a dedicated six-year old will commit to.) I had spoken with my green-thumbed mother, daughter of a central Illinois farmer and she knew the place to plant The Brandon Tree.

Together we dug a hole, pulled the tangled roots out of the cup, and patted the dirt like we were tucking the pine into bed. Barely sticking above the lush lawn, the lawn mower could decimate the seedling more reminiscent of a bonsai project than a future towering tree. We put a tomato stake guard around it, Brandon soaked the soil with the watering can and went in for dinner.

He envisioned the tree sprouting tall overnight, and was disappointed to see it was the same size the next morning. It wasn’t noticeably taller the next time we visited or the next time or the next time. We promised him that one day the Brandon Tree would tower over him, but that was tough for a kindergartner to imagine let alone wait for.

For the first years, the Brandon Tree put down roots when we wanted to see more branches and height, proof it was growing. Each visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, Brandon checked on his tree. My parents regularly sent photos of Grandpa mowing around the tree wearing his Pella window hat or Grandma with the yellow yard clippers going round the tomato stake on her knees.

Ranking in the 90th percentile from birth, the real Brandon towered over the Brandon Tree. The tree barely topped his socks until Brandon was in sixth or seventh grade when the tree had a growth spurt and looked him in the eye. Then Brandon grew six inches between the start and end of eighth grade and the tree lost ground to the taller-than-mom giant with knee-length tube socks on long legs.

After Mom passed away twelve years ago, Dad remarried, sold the house and moved a few numbers down the street. Brandon, now in his early 30’s, measures 6’ 5”, but the Brandon Tree has won. It towers about two-stories high and shows no sign of stopping. Still spindly like a high school basketball player with limbs akimbo, we’re waiting for it to thicken and sport a paunch.

Every time I’m up for a visit, I pass the house on the corner and look for the Brandon tree. In the shadows, I see the determined six-year old holding the seedling, firmly convinced it could be a Christmas tree someday. Then the frustration of negligible growth, the waiting, and the dismay when it looked like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. Then the restrained delight of the pre-adolescent when he and the tree were the same height.

In Milwaukee recently to celebrate my dad’s 90th birthday, we paused the car near the Brandon Tree. Staring into the branches stretching high in the aura from a street light, I thought, “Raising sturdy pines isn’t for the impatient, the hurried, or the control freak.” Three generations planted, protected, watered, and weeded, but we didn’t, we couldn’t, make the silly thing grow. All we could do was hope and wait. Fortunately that’s all it needed.

“He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.” Isaiah 44:14

 

How Comfortable Are You With Questions?

doubtful“There wasn’t space to ask questions or express doubts in my high school youth group, so I pulled away from the church,” said the young mom now married to an evangelical pastor. “I wasn’t content being spoon fed verses from the Bible and expected to blindly accept them as sufficient answers to my questions. I was dubious of a twenty-something youth pastor spouting pat responses I wasn’t sure he understood or believed.”

Her faith pilgrimage wasn’t the first one to describe the “No Questions Allowed” roadblock. It’s common in Christian circles whether a church has a tradition of confirmation classes or catechism or a walk to the front of the church as an acknowledgment of faith. Questions about the Bible, how God acts in the world, who God is, who Jesus is, how you can believe in something you can’t see are fair to ask, particularly for young people in the midst of identity formation.

Why do we tend to back away or become defensive in response to genuine, searching questions? Maybe we want to avoid conflict or reveal we don’t know. Maybe it’s an issue we struggle with, and we’d rather portray a solid faith than a squishy one. Maybe we think we haven’t done a good job teaching and explaining if someone still has questions. But for someone to hold tightly to a set of beliefs over the long haul, they need to own them rather than be indoctrinated. They need to think them through, test their seaworthiness, and declare they’re a boat they will take out to sea.

Parents have high expectations for a high school youth pastor’s ability to get their kid on track. As an empty-nester, I volunteered for several years with high school youth groups, and heard more than one parent lament the spiritual life of their junior or senior. They were convinced that all would be lost if their son or daughter’s faith wasn’t rock-solid before they started college or work. Once launched and outside the protective bubble of home, they feared their kids would be part of the 70% who turn their backs on the Christian faith. Rightly so as multiple studies report.

The preventative measures often taken are to inject teens with knowledge and as many Bible verses as possible. Stay upbeat; don’t let people express doubts. They could be contagious and sink the group. Allow a few questions, and supply a definitive answer even when there isn’t one. Use black and white language to discuss beliefs; keep away from gray terminology. Unfortunately this “safe” approach doesn’t satisfy; it drives away. It doesn’t work for adults either.

In a rush to appear authoritative and certain, we miss the opportunity to equip others to tolerate the ambiguity inherent in faith and spirituality. Christianity is a blend of essential, foundational truths—orthodoxy, and a slew of variations as to how that is lived out—orthopraxy. Christians firmly accept the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and yet vary widely in the observance of baptism and communion, for example. Mystery and subtlety are woven throughout Christianity and the Bible; nothing is fully explainable, and God himself is incomprehensible. To live comfortably in the space between the contradictions of firm belief and unknowing requires maturity and a developed taste for ambiguity.

A high tolerance for ambiguity is defined as the ability to make a decision or take action before having all the answers and is regarded as a sign of spiritual maturity. If there’s anything that faith requires more often than an old-timer believer would like to admit, it’s the ability to follow God, to be a disciple of Jesus, with only the first five feet of the path illuminated. Faith involves a decision to keep going when the “why’s” go unanswered, when the “how’s” aren’t in a manual, when the “when’s” are nothing but blank calendar pages.

Whatever role we play–parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, teacher, volunteer, coach—we have an opportunity to create a safe place for honest questions. In our small group discussions, the young ladies were initially uncomfortable when I encouraged them to think work through their doubts. Their questions and struggles were a sign that they were thinking, wrestling and taking Christianity’s claims seriously enough to expend mental energy, something I applauded. Whether the freedom to question helped them form their beliefs, I may never know; at least we didn’t erect roadblocks.

The young mom found someone comfortable with questions to mentor her during college and her thirst for Jesus and the church was reignited. For others it takes decades of testing different faiths, trying on no faith, and collecting life experiences before they turn back to Christianity. Some never do. Making room for doubts won’t keep everyone in the faith, but when they’re encouraged and respected, wanderers might return sooner and others never leave. Growth and maturity are essential to cope well with the inevitable gray squares of life; helping each other through the question patches rather than avoiding them strengthens us all.

 

Learning from the Changing Tide

50461 PR beach

Beach in Puerto Rico

When we arrived at Ogunquit Beach in southern Maine, we noticed the chairs, coolers and beach umbrellas were grouped yards from the water. Our group of Midwesterners opted to take advantage of the sandy real estate and set up camp closer to the waves. We frolicked for several hours, and relished being away from Boston for the day.

Mid-afternoon one of the guys in our group waved his arms and called frantically from the beach, “Hurry, come get your stuff. The water is rising!” We dashed out of the water, grabbed towels and sandals, and joined the experienced Easterners where they’d been sitting all along. I didn’t hear any snickers; their knowing looks didn’t require a soundtrack.

Chlorinated water contained in a concrete hole in the ground was my childhood swimming environment–central Illinois being short on saline shorelines. I swam all day and never worried that my towel would float away. My major concern was the adult swim. Every hour on the hour, the lifeguards stood on the platforms around their chairs and blew their whistles. Then the loudspeaker squawked, “Adult swim. Anyone under 18 must exit the pool. Now.” Bored and hungry, we lined up to buy Dreamsicles, popsicles, ice cream sandwiches and frozen candy bars. Some kids watched the clock and got in line before the whistle, but I couldn’t see that far without my glasses.

The ocean follows a timetable, too–one governed by the pull of the moon. The tide rushes in, and rustles over the sands, The water constantly moves, and the depth varies from hour to hour.

Even after decades of experience, I expect life to behave more like water in a swimming pool than on an ocean beach. I like the 4’6” marker painted along the side in large black numbers. I like being able to throw a towel on a chaise lounge confident it will still be there later. But like the tide, individuals, relationships, organizations, sports teams, churches and institutions fluctuate.

They slide from flourishing to struggling to flourishing to struggling, back and forth, back and forth. When sales decline, losses exceed wins, the sand dries out, friends move away, relationships end, the towel gets wet and my left sandal drifts away, the movement is unwelcome. Even when I know it’s a phase and flourishing will eventually return, I push back. I attempt to manage my circumstances like water in a pool, but my control invariably gets sucked away like the sand under my feet. When I finally relax and let the change filter like sifted sand between my fingers, when I can enjoy the saltwater’s shifting course, then change feels natural–even welcome. 

The author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). If he’d lived near the ocean, he might have added, “A time for the tide to come in, and a time for it to go out.” For us swimming pool gurus, learning to rise and fall with the flow is an acquired skill. Those who’ve spent time at the beach with sand pails, shovels and tide charts have a head start.

One Who Fell and Put the Pieces Back Together Well

The news story first broke in June 1987; the one when my former senior pastor confessed to an adulterous affair. Assemblies of God pastor, Jim Bakker, received the mainstream press’ attention that year for his alleged sexual misconduct and financial misdealings, but Gordon MacDonald’s admission rocked the conservative Protestant world and mine.

MacDonald pastored one of the largest churches in the Boston metropolitan area when we moved to Massachusetts for my husband’s legal studies. From the few strong evangelical churches in the area, we selected Grace Chapel in Lexington as our home church. For two years we listened to Gordon’s exemplary preaching on Sundays. For one year I and hundreds of women benefitted from his wife’s teaching leadership of the weekly women’s bible study.

In 1984 Gordon resigned and became the minister-at-large for the relief organization, World Vision. Little over a year later he took over the Presidency of the collegiate student ministry organization, InterVarsity Fellowship (IVF). While at IVF, an anonymous letter sent to religious publishers exposed the illicit relationship; MacDonald admitted to the affair and resigned.

Jimmy Bakker’s fall from his highly visible perch on the PTL (Praise the Lord) television program and network seemed an inherent, but distant, risk of flying high. His was a case of fame and personal power inflating the non-existent invisibility screen some prominent leaders expect to protect them. When it doesn’t, they feverishly spew hot air to re-inflate and backpedal like a rabid spin instructor. Tammy Faye’s long eyelashes added a measure of comic relief to the sad drama of a man of God trying to save face like a politician caught in a sexting scandal.

But Gordon MacDonald? He spoke at Wheaton College’s special services week in spring 1976 before I matriculated, and the series spawned the then-popular book, Magnificent Marriage. For years I had looked up to him, trusted his guidance, read his wise words, and gladly called him pastor. We never met, but his humble heart and desire to know God shone through his preaching and writing.

but we know prominent Christian leaders aren’t trees that fall silently in the woods.

The admitted affair ran from late 1984 to early 1985, and Gordon initiated a restoration process before his misconduct became public. Later he commented that he wished the situation could have been dealt with in private, but we know prominent Christian leaders aren’t trees that fall silently in the woods. He repented and confessed, then requested and received discipline from a council of church elders who held him accountable for his behavior and relationships.

After the affair was disclosed, Gordon demonstrated a humble and contrite heart like the broken King David in Psalm 51. He didn’t take a defensive posture, try to inflate the shield, blame the other woman, blame his wife for not meeting his needs, minimize his culpability, claim he was having a mid-life crisis, or try to wriggle out of the truth. He faced it head on, admitted his sin, and choose a path toward potential restoration of ministry. For two years he moved out of the spotlight, pulled back from publishing and preaching, and spent time with God. He pursued the spiritual disciplines to help him examine his heart, understand his weaknesses, and accept his humanity.

broken mirror reflectionIn Rebuilding Your Broken World, he describes the foundational principle for restoration as “the premise that individuals who have misbehaved must present themselves before God in openness and acknowledge responsibility and accountability” (italics in the original.) He expounds on eighteen “Bottom Line” principles to address in order to be restored and finish the race well. I thought Gordon’s response would become the Christian norm, but I’ve not seen anyone follow this path since.

No matter the patterns we bring from our family of origin, our personality, the circumstances, or the relational dynamics, falling on our knees in repentance and confession is the only way to find true healing and restoration. Politicians can, and admittedly we expect them to, plug in the public relations machine, spin a tune, and claim like comedian Flip Wilson, “The Devil made me do it.” They aren’t expected to go the “accept responsibility” route, but men and women of God are.

The Bible doesn’t sugarcoat our human frailty and propensity to go astray or let it slide when it happens.  Read the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 and 12; then study David’s expression of remorse and guilt in Psalm 51 penned after the prophet Nathan told a heart-rending story of a poor man’s single ewe lamb to convict him of sin. That’s our pattern, our model, and Gordon MacDonald eventually followed it.

God in his grace and mercy has restored him to ministry. In 1989, MacDonald became pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Manhattan, and returned to Grace Chapel in 1993 as Senior Pastor, though without unanimous support of the congregation. He and his wife, Gail, now in their 70’s, continue to invest in the lives of younger people through an intensive discipleship ministry held in their home. Gordon speaks, writes, and travels the world to help others become aware of their vulnerability to sin and finish well.

MacDonald gave in to temptation in the one area he felt the most secure–his relationships. His dalliance was a painful way to unveil his Achilles heel, and it cost him–like David whose infant son with Bathsheba died, and whose son, Absalom, publicly lay with David’s many wives. But MacDonald has reaped the long-term benefits of facing the painful truth, confessing sin, making amends, and relying on God’s grace to restore relationships.

Each time a news blurb reveals a prominent Christian leader’s abuse of power, pedophilia, unscrupulous financial dealings, sexual affairs, addictions or whatever sin snared them, I pray they’ll choose the healthy trail less travelled. Few will, but we all win when they do.

A Call to Return to the US Postal Service

When I moved the mouse over “send” and squeezed my finger, I noticed I’d selected “reply all.”  Crap. Fortunately the results were not as disastrous as those in Robin Hemley’s short story, “Reply All.” where two members of a poetry association secretly having an affair made the same error. Mine was merely a mild frustration I’d discussed privately, and wanted to keep it that way. This isn’t the only hazard inherent in electronic communication.

There’s autofill. My contact list includes several Susan’s, Katherine’s, and names that begin “Ch.” I’ve texted the wrong Susan, added the wrong Katherine to a group, or emailed a “Chris” when I wanted a “Charles”. Autofill nonsensically changed “iTunes” to “sewer” and continues to do so. Dinner plans to meet at “Authentico at 8:15” carried a new guarantee – “authenticity at 8:15.” To outmaneuver autofill is to win a battle with a relentless, unseen opponent.

stack of mailA return to pen and ink would minimize these challenges and potentially resuscitate the USPS. Multiple recipients would require multiple physical copies, and end unintentional group mailings. A physical envelope needs a first and last name, street address or PO, city, state and zip code, and can only be sent to one location. If a letter ends up in the wrong hands, it’s the Post Office’s fault, not mine. If the address is incorrect, it will be stamped “Return to Sender” and mailed back unopened. Spelling errors will happen, but with less dreadful results.

The Volume Trap. Anything as cheap and easy to send as email, texts and instant messages breeds like rabbits. Mass mailings, multiple recipients, multiple responses—with hundreds of items a day in the inbox who can keep up? Any company I purchase from or donate to online interprets the exchange as license to communicate regularly, Williams-Sonoma, Talbots and Sur la Table on a daily basis, Abebooks weekly.

I spent the summer after my college freshman year working at a summer camp’s ice cream shop in upper state New York. Without texts, cheap long-distance phone calls, email or Facebook, I wrote letters to my family and classmates. During my free time, I’d pull out my flowered stationery, pick up a Paper Mate pen and write. Then I’d insert the folded pages in an envelope, address it, lick a stamp and walk to the mailbox. With the physical effort involved in sending a message, inbox overpopulation was not a concern, and nobody (well, maybe a lovesick boyfriend) send something daily.

Comment boxes are well-designed quicksand and deserve warning labels.

Comment Box. Nearly ubiquitous on blogs and websites, this Freedom of the Press invitation todialogue with the author and fellow readers is well-disguised quicksand that deserves warning labels. In the a.m.: To be used only after drinking coffee and being awake longer than sixty minutes.In the p.m.: Not to be used under the influence of insomnia or boredom. At any time: Not to be used when your face is beet-red and revenge is blooming.

The antiquated process of mailed communication provides safeguards the instantaneous “send” and “publish” buttons can’t offer. Not all the angry “Dear John” letters or adolescent diatribes about an unfair mother I wrote were sent. Before I walked out the door or released the envelope in the slot, I could throw away the harmful letter without anyone knowing I’d thrown a tantrum. Trolls, take note.

Old-fashioned snail mail still moves at a slower pace. It isn’t picked up on Sundays, after 4:00 pm, or before 9:00 am. Unless someone lives in the same town, days pass before a letter lands in an inbox. If I change my mind before the postal carrier delivers, I can make a call and diminish the damage. “If you leave the letter I sent on Friday unopened and throw it away, I would be ever so grateful. If you must read it, know it doesn’t reflect my thinking now. Please call me back. We need to talk.”

A genteel elegance and gravity accompanies the handwritten missives, reserved primarily for wedding invitations and “Thank You” notes now. They convey a sense of taste, a hint of style through paper choice, ink color, and stamp–a something the “you’ve got mail” pings and honks can’t replicate.

The nostalgic appeal of the slow letter in a mailbox practice pulls on me like a like an eager puppy on the end of a leash. But I regularly prize expediency over uniqueness, and let broad distribution trump the intimacy of a one-of-a-kind note. So I’ll continue to slip-up, bemoan the inherent hazards, mourn the loss of recognizing a friend’s handwriting, and leave the USPS to survive by itself.

I’d rather send my musings on embossed, heavyweight stationery with a collectible stamp, but I’m in a hurry, and I don’t know your address.

 

Can You Live by (p)roverbs Alone?

wisdomProverbial sayings may contain the collective wisdom of any particular culture, but they’re not great as signposts. Say the guy you’ve been dating for six months announces he’s been transferred to a new position a few states away; you meet Michelle at Starbucks to process. You’ve had fun with him and like him, but don’t want to move and follow him. “Maybe we could have a long-distance relationship,” you say. Michelle replies, “Look, it’s a 50/50 proposition. Either absence makes the heart grow fonder or out of sight is out of mind. Why not give it a try; you don’t have much to lose. There’s always more fish in the sea.”

She continues, “If he takes days to text back, remember that no news is good news,” then counters, “The mice will play while the cat’s away, and if you’re not physically there you can’t be sure what is going on.” Your options are as clear as mud now.

You do the FaceTime and Skype routine for a couple months, but miss being in the same space. When you meet half-way for a weekend, there’s this warm glow and you think, Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Maybe it’s wise to strike while the iron is hot, but then there’s this risk that love is blind and I’m missing something. Love may make the world go ‘round, but my head is spinning and I think I’m going crazy. Not the, “bats in your belfry” kind of crazy, more the loose screw kind. Maybe I’m not playing with a full deck. Maybe…

In search of sanity, you text Michelle since two heads are better than one. But maybe you need more opinions than hers; it was her counsel that pushed you over the edge last time. Then again too many cooks spoil the broth, and the decision is yours to make in the end.

Michelle’s her usual nonchalant self. You envision her shrugging as you read, “If you decide you still want to be together, go for it. Don’t hesitate if you don’t want to let this one get away. Then again take all the time that you need because haste makes waste, and slow and steady wins the race.” Rrrrgh.

Driving home, you decide you’ll go with your gut and hang in there. Or maybe you’ll flip a coin confident you can’t go wrong either way.